A large majority of Air Force personnel chosen to work with victims of sex assault were not properly trained or did not go through special background checks before beginning their assignments, according to an April 2014 audit obtained by The News Tribune.
The results were so striking that the military began making corrections before the Air Force Audit Agency even completed its report, according to the document.
Since then, Air Force officials told the newspaper, they have adopted more thorough training standards for airmen selected to work as sex assault response coordinators and victim advocates.
The audit, conducted in 2013 and early 2014, looked at the qualifications of almost 2,500 Air Force personnel who were chosen to work with victims as sex assault response coordinators or victim advocates.
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It found that:
• 117 of them did not participate in initial training before beginning their work.
• 852 of them did not participate in required refresher training.
• 826 of them did not receive the background checks the Air Force is required to conduct.
• 167 of them did not have security clearances.
• Altogether, 1,435 sex assault response coordinators and victim advocates had flaws in their records either from deficient background checks or from missed training.
The findings were much more positive at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. All of the 16 Air Force victim advocates and sex assault response coordinators at JBLM who were checked by the audit had appropriate training, background checks and security clearances. The Air Force now has 19 civilians and airmen in those roles at McChord Air Field.
Former active-duty Air Force attorneys say the audit findings reflect the military’s scramble to build sex assault response programs as it has faced increasing pressure from Congress to reduce such misbehavior in the ranks.
“They wanted to give the appearance that they were taking it seriously, so they were rushing these programs in without properly vetting them,” said retired Col. Don Christensen, a former Air Force chief prosecutor who was based at McChord Air Field as a judge from 2008 to 2010. He now is the president of an organization called our Protect Our Defenders that advocates for changes in military law to better serve sexual assault victims.
Training is critical for victim advocates, he said, because “if they don’t have the experience and knowledge to deal with sex assault, then when they’re hearing a survivor, they may be dismissive about what he or she is telling them.”
Mike Berens, a defense attorney who until last year was an Air Force prosecutor at McChord, said the training and background audit showed the military to be “in a hurry to put things in place rather than put things in place in the right way.”
He’s concerned that the push to show improvement on sexual assault has triggered reforms that are not yet fully understood.
“It seemed that senior leaders were facing such pressure from Congress and other representatives that they were throwing already stretched resources at the (sexual assault) program,” he said. “It also seemed almost unending.”
The scrutiny given to military sexual assault personnel was stepped up after an embarrassing incident in 2013, when an Army sexual harassment and assault response program manager was accused of running a prostitution ring at Fort Hood, Texas. Last year, the Army purged 588 soldiers from sensitive jobs that included recruiters and sexual assault response counselors after background checks revealed criminal infractions, according to The Associated Press.
The Pentagon and Congress have launched a variety of programs meant to reduce sexual assault over the past three years. The reforms were driven in large part by high-profile reports of misconduct and an effort by New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to give military prosecutors more authority over decisions regarding which cases should go to trial. Senior military leaders generally oppose Gillibrand’s proposal because it would take authority away from military commanders.
Last week, the Rand Corporation released a report estimating that 20,300 members of the active-duty military were sexually assaulted in 2014, down from an estimated 26,000 in 2012. Its findings were based on a survey of active-duty troops.
Defense Department officials in December announced that actual reports of sex assault had increased in 2014 compared with the previous year, which they considered to be a good sign because it told them that victims were more comfortable coming forward.
In the South Sound, reports of sexual assault at the Air Force’s 62nd Airlift Wing declined from 12 in 2013 to eight last year.
I Corps, the main Army command at JBLM, also recorded a small decline in reports of sexual assault last year. They dropped to 114, down from 120 in 2013. I Corps anticipates an increase in reports this year, with more male victims reporting the crime.
The Washington National Guard is counting an increase in sexual assault reports. It declined to release statistics. Officials said some of the reports relate to incidents that took place several years ago.
“What we’re finding is that people are much more confident in the (sex assault response) program,” said Sgt. 1st Class Melinda Heikkinen, a sexual assault response coordinator for the Washington National Guard.
Representatives from the Army and the Air Force said background checks for people who work with sexual assault victims have increased since the 2013 period that made up the bulk of the Air Force audit reviewed by The News Tribune.
Soldiers in sexual assault response positions are now subject to internal military background checks, reviews of criminal databases, security clearance reviews and reviews of information that could disclose addiction problems, said Sgt. 1st Class Charles Daniels of the I Corps sexual harassment and assault prevention program.
In addition to the initial screening that all airmen must pass, the Air Force requires personnel in its sexual assault response program to have security clearances and periodic background checks, said Maritza Sayle-Walker, senior policy analyst for the Air Force program. She did not know why that was not always carried out during the period of the training audit.
Training, similarly, is more extensive than it was two years ago, military service members said.
Kimberly Dickman, chief of training and development for the Air Force Sex Assault Prevention and Response program, said the Air Force has adopted a more interactive training model. Previously, it was a lecture-based weeklong course. The Air Force also requires people who work with sex assault victims to gain certification from the National Organization for Victim Advocates.
“You have to have that certification before you can work with victims,” she said. The improvements are “quite a drastic change,” she said.
I Corps recently sent several soldiers to a seven-week sex-assault prevention academy at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Daniels said the Army is getting more volunteers for those assignments.
“I think that’s making a big difference,” he said.
Christensen, the former Air Force chief prosecutor, favors the broader reform backed by Gillibrand. He won a sex-assault conviction against F-16 pilot, only to have a three-star general overturn it in 2013.
“Certain people in the Air Force are taking (sexual assault) more seriously, but I think a lot of our senior leadership doesn’t believe it’s a problem,” he said. “They know what they have to say to Congress, but I don’t think they really believe it.”